Beyond the Brief

Next time you’re planning to update the photography for your corporate communications, why not consider allowing some additional creative time within the session? Allowing some creative space beyond the brief could result in some interesting results.

An excellent example of this is from November last year when I was commissioned to create new team head shots for business data analysts Kaiasm – I’m massively paraphrasing what they do for the sake of brevity.

There was one shot which I pretty much took as a bit of a joke; I’d noticed how the data graph behind the founder Liam McGee’s head made him look like he had a halo. When I mentioned this to him, he obliged with a suitable pose and expression and I took the shot.

The photo was included in the final edit because I know clients often enjoy the odd outtake in their set, but I didn’t expect to see it used.

A couple of weeks later, the local paper ran the photo with an article about Kaiasm and their pending expansion plans.

So allowing some creative freedom and a dollop of humour can lead to unexpectedly useful results. That photo will have drawn far more attention to the article than any plain headshot or stock image of the office would have done, and will have conveyed Kaiasm as a business run by human beings, not robots.

Bear in mind the creative possibilities, even the occasional happy accident afforded by engaging a professional photographer, and you may find the results are a revelation.

Tethered Capture (seeing the bigger picture)

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle in the press lately about Royalty and tethering (I won’t expand on that here) and it reminded me that I’ve never really explained what tethering means from a photographer’s point of view and why it might be useful to a client.

Tethering is a method of taking photos while the camera is linked to a laptop via a cable, but what it involves and why you’d want to do it is worth a little further explanation.

Tethered capture, as it’s often called, allows the photographer to review photos on a laptop within about a second of them being taken. Of course pictures can be reviewed on the back of the camera, and that’s my regular way of working. However that tiny little screen, often obscured with nose grease (yum!) isn’t always the best way to check fine detail.

A far better solution is to take test shots, then review them on the laptop screen to see how the light is working and whether any tweaks to clothing or hair might be necessary. Really fine details (a cat hair on a lapel, or a stray hair across an eye) are often only visible when viewed on a larger screen.

The software which allows the pictures to display on the laptop (I use Adobe Lightroom) can also be set to show a rough idea of the final treatment (colour, contrast, sharpening etc) that I’ll be using, so a marketing executive can get an idea of how the finished images will look and we can adjust according to their requirements.

Likewise the sitters also benefit from being able to view the images on a decent-sized screen so they can be happy with their shots before going back to their work. They’ll have a much clearer idea of what we’re getting and this can also help them relax into the shoot. Once we’re happy with the test shots, I don’t tend to look at the screen again until after each person’s sitting.

The other reason I like to work this way if I can is that it means the images are backed up automatically as I shoot – one set on the camera card, a duplicate set on the laptop hard drive. So if there is a failure, I’ve a better chance of recovering images which might otherwise be lost.

Of course tethering only works for the headshot work I do because camera movement is limited by the cable length and the reliability of the connection. I couldn’t shoot a corporate event or a conference using tethering, it just wouldn’t be practical, but for the business headshot it’s a useful tool.

It’s also possible to get camera and computer to communicate via wifi, but this can be too fiddly and unreliable, so I tend to use the cable method.

So if I turn up at your corporate headshot session with a music stand, don’t panic: I’m not about to pull a cello from my rolling case and launch into a Rachmaninoff sonata, sometimes it’s just handy to work tethered and to see the bigger picture.

 

Space – Time Continuum

A recent experience reminded me once again of the importance of two particular aspects of a corporate portrait photography session, namely space and time. In fact as these two elements are inextricably linked, we can refer to them as a continuum.

Setting aside the fourth dimension for a moment, on this particular occasion I was shown into a vast board room, which would have been perfect except it was mostly filled with immobile boardroom furniture; massive table and countless chairs. At the same time I was told I could only have the room for half an hour, which is approximately how long it would have taken me to set up the lighting kit even if there had been space to do so.

This would have left no time for any photography to happen, let lone the two hours I was booked for. A continuum conundrum, no less.

Thankfully we were able to find an alternative room which, though smaller, had much more clear floor space. It was also available for two hours, which was just about enough – not perfect, as I was booked for three (and could happily have filled them with the shots listed as required), but better than zero minutes by quite a considerable percentage.

Of course when you’re setting up a photo session, coordinating the schedules of everyone involved is often a headache, but it’s worth thinking of the room and the time required as if they were two more people in the schedule. If a room or the time in that room are unavailable, it’s a no-goer.

The time required will depend on how many people are to be photographed and the brief to which I’ll be working (more varieties of poses etc will obviously require more time) and at least 30 minute’s set-up and break-down time should be factored either side of the session.

How much space is needed will depend on whether it’s close head shots or full-length portraits required (full-length requires a great deal more space), but as a rule of thumb for headshots, you need to allow approximately 2.5 – 3m width x 3m length (length being the distance between where I’ll stand and the next wall or immobile obstacle).

This is approximate, but it is a realistic guide. You can easily add another couple of metres to the length for full-length portraits.

The photo on this article shows an example of where I’ve had more space than I knew what to do with (it was in fact one half of a hotel ballroom!), but seeing the set-up gives you some notion of how that space is used.

So remember, when you’re booking all the executives and colleagues for that all-important photo session, don’t forget to plan the room and ring-fence the time. Without those two elements, the space – time continuum breaks down and everything else becomes academic.

Portable Portraits

If there is one thing I do an awful lot of, it’s business portraits. The days when businesses will tolerate having stock image models represent them on their websites and in brochures seem finally to have passed, at least among businesses wishing to maintain any kind of credibility in their marketing. If you’re a high-street accountancy firm in Bristol, pictures of orange-tanned, square-jawed Canadian actors pretending to be Bristol-based accountants just don’t really work any more.

In fact they never did, but fashions come and go and now I find I pick up a lot of business from clients wishing to obliterate any sign of perma-tan or American dentistry from their About Us pages. Heck, we’re not all super-models but we are who we are and shouldn’t try to hide behind fakery.

All this is great for my business, and as dull as it might sound to be photographing business people in air-conditioned offices on build-fill-repeat office parks all over the country, getting to meet so many people is fun and interesting. And part of my job is to put people at their ease, so there are always a few laughs involved. And laughing is medically proven to be good for you, so me and my clients are reaping health benefits too, right?

Now if you’re a business wanting to get away from the look of the business clone offered by iStockphoto, apart from a few minutes of your colleagues’ time as they sit for their portraits (this can take as little as 10 minutes!) the only other things I need are somewhere to park (as close to the office as possible is ideal as there is a fair bit of kit to carry in) and a spare meeting room.

a portable studio lighting set-up in an office

A decent-sized meeting room is perfect

I’ve included a photo of a typical set-up to give you some idea of the kind of space I need. It isn’t a huge amount, but it helps if tables can be moved and chairs tend to fill a room up pretty well, so if they can be taken out before the shoot this is really helpful.

The distance between myself and the sitter is usually less than 2 metres, and I need enough width to get a decent space between the lighting heads, but again 2 or 3 metres tops is ample.

All my equipment is battery powered, so no need to be near power sockets. In fact I was doing a portrait session in an office in Edinburgh last year when there was an unexpected power cut. Since none of the staff could get on with their work, I was able to work on through the list of names pretty efficiently.

So there you have it, if you use portraits on your website, in brochures or pitch documents, there’s no need to believe that getting proper shots of your people will be a massive logistical nightmare. If you’re still not sure, why not get in touch and I’ll be happy to tell you more about the practicalities and fees.

Another Chapter

Smiling portrait against a grey background of author Sally M Gander

Standard head shot for small usage

Author portrait sessions are fun, I just don’t get to do them very often. That’s a slight understatement because in fact I believe in the last 15 years as a freelance I’ve done the grand sum of two. The first was in May 2003 for sci-fi writer Karen Traviss for her book City of Pearl, the second was in November last year for young adult fiction writer Sally M Gander* as part of the launch of her debut ebook, The Big Deep. A gap of just over a decade. Hardly London buses then.

What’s fun about them is that they are an opportunity for more creative input than I tend to get with, for example, corporate portraits. Using Sally as an example, we were able to discuss style and mood which feeds into considerations of location and, for me at least, what kit to use. Also, since the writing world has changed so dramatically since the halcyon days of 2003, we needed to consider context a lot more.

Author Sally M Gander's photo session in the street is interrupted by a passerby hugging her

A hazard of taking portraits in the street

Not only will these photos be needed for a possible inside jacket, but also for all kinds of social media, blog use, press use, print and digital. In fact I suspect the shoot covered Sally for pretty much everything barring projection onto the London gherkin (not sure what my obsession with all things London is this week).

We started the session with some fairly straight head shots, indoors against a white backdrop, then switched to grey. Some smiling, some straight-faced as these are useful for when a portrait is to be used very small somewhere.

After the warm indoor part we ventured onto the chilly streets of Frome and worked on getting more mood into the shots and making sure there was a variety of landscape and portrait orientations and shots with left/right emphasis. In order to work fast I stuck to just two lenses, a 35mm and a 105mm, and a single flash to augment the rather nice daylight.

Even keeping it simple takes some time. Add in the odd interruption (a hazard of taking photos on the street) and a couple of changes of location, and by the time I’d finished Sally’s eyes were watering so much it looked as if she might be crying. It’s possible she was, it was bitterly cold.

Landscape portrait of Sally M Gander, author, taken in Shepherds Barton, Frome

A landscape-oriented shot is also useful

The session finished, later that day I did the editing and processing on the files and delivered them to Sally, who said they were absolutely the best photos ever taken of her (I paraphrase, but she was definitely pleased).

So now all I have to do is wait another decade for my next writerly client. I’ll let you know when it happens.

Frome-based author Sally M Gander poses by a stone wall in Frome

An alternative backdrop and different expression change the mood completely

To buy Sally M Gander’s debut novel The Big Deep, click here.

*Yes, there is a relationship between myself and Sally M Gander. We are married. We are separated. We are friends.

Case Study: Business Portrait Consistency

contact sheet of business portraits

Reasonable consistency across different sites is possible with the right set up and approach.

A recent commission, spread over a number of days, consisted of corporate portraits of around 50 partners and staff in accountancy firm Moore Stephens.

Simple enough, apart from three considerations: Firstly the portraits all needed the same look, secondly the staff are spread across five office sites (Salisbury, Chichester, Newport, Southampton and Guildford) and finally the style needed to match that which I’d established with the client on a shoot which happened over a year ago.

The first task then was to pull the previous headshots from my archive and double check the look and lighting of them. That’s easy enough, and I remembered what setup I’d used so simply had to replicate that for the new shots.

The simplicity of that setup also made it easier to replicate it across the sites. This was handy because different offices have different amounts of space for me to work in, so compact is good.

Different offices will also have different kinds of lighting in them, and different amounts of daylight. Really I needed to kill the daylight and ceiling lights, and set up using my portable studio lighting so that again the look would remain as consistent as possible.

I’d previously chosen quite a flat, “airy” kind of lighting because as nice as it is to use dramatic side-lighting, it can be a lot less flattering. And while everyone at Moore Stephens is attractive in person, I have to consider how they’ll look in a photo.

With corporate portraits I often emphasise to the client that these photos aren’t meant to flatter them or look good on the mantlepiece, their purpose is to make them look friendly and professional to their existing and potential clients. Even so, when shooting dozens of headshots while trying to keep people tied up for as little time as possible, the set-up I used ensured that the pictures are consistent, as flattering as they need to be and simple to execute.

Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and so far I’ve had some very complimentary comments about how it all turned out.

If you have a lot of people in your business that need to be photographed, it’s worth thinking about how the look you want will translate into images which can be replicated for other staff at other sites, and how well that look will suit the people being photographed. And if it all gets too complicated, this will affect how easy it is to get everyone photographed in a sensible amount of time.

What price a portrait?

corporate portrait of businessman in Bristol

A corporate portrait can be more than a mugshot.

I should start by explaining that this article isn’t talking about family portraits or photos for the mantelpiece. What I’m talking about here is the business portrait. The corporate headshot for the profile page of a commercial website, newsletter or chairman’s statement in the annual report.

Why is this distinction important? Mainly for licensing reasons. If you go to a high street photographic studio and have photos taken you will probably pay about £30 for a sitting, and £100 for a print to hang on the wall. And personal use is all you’ll be allowed of that photo. Commercial use would require payment of an extra fee, and I suspect most studios wouldn’t be happy handing over an original digital file for that use as you could then get your own reprints done, which would of course breach the photographer’s copyright.

When you have a photographer visit your offices to take portraits for the company website/brochure etc, you’re not paying for prints for personal use (though you can probably buy those if you want), instead you’re paying a licence fee to use the images for corporate use. This is a different kind of agreement with the photographer and the pricing structure is different.

Of course if you book a photographer and then just have a single headhsot done, it can work out relatively expensive. Perhaps £250 to get a small selection of images for use across various media. But if you line up a few headshots to be taken at the same time, the cost will rise but the individual price for each headshot will drop quite dramatically.

It’s often quite difficult to explain this concept to clients who will say “well it’s only some portraits, they shouldn’t take long.” The thing is, in commercial and corporate photography, it isn’t just the time taken to get the shots that you’re being charged for, but also the commercial (as opposed to domestic) value of the photos. Remember, these photos are part of your marketing, and hopefully will help your business make more money. They may not be used as prominently as your product shots, or general photos of your business operation, but they’re all part of the mix and to have any value to your business, they have to be good. Which requires skill, time and equipment to achieve.

In short, you need to give the humble head and shoulders photo some respect and also understand that what you’re paying for is a combination of the photographer’s skill, experience and time on the commission, as well as a fee for the commercial exploitation of the results.

And what is that worth? As I said earlier, if you hire a photographer to take just one headshot you could easily pay £250 for that, maybe more. Get a batch of portraits done in half a day and the rate might rise to around £500, but if 10 portraits are done, that works out at £50 per head. That’s less than you’d pay for a 10-inch print to hang on your wall at home, and your clients can’t even see that photo. Unless they’ve broken into your house.